Confession of a Church Creative

Mike Brennan
Mar 3 · 7 min read

I have a confession to make. (and it has nothing to do with the Foo Fighters).

It’s a confession about years spent doing things I sometimes loved, and other times, spent in frustration.

I have been considering sharing these thoughts for a little while, but honestly I wasn’t really sure the best way to express this. And I by no means wanted to seem to be speaking ill of anyone I have worked with, or for, in the past. I consider those people my friends. My intentions are only to share internal observations and experiences I have had and hopefully offer to help to someone who might resonate.

My Confession

I spent many years on staff working in the church world as a graphic designer and in other creative roles. It’s an amazing thing when you can contribute to something that’s bigger than yourself, and be a part of a team that is literally striving to make a difference in people’s lives. Odds are, if you took a church staff position, it was because the church first played a role in changing your own life. In essence, it can be a part of giving back, and helping lend your skills and talents to a place that made such a difference in your own life.

However, working in a ministry environment is not an easy position. It is not less than the market place, it’s just different, with it’s own set of parameters.

Imagine your favorite restaurant. You love the environment. And then there’s your favorite meal. You’re getting hungry just thinking about it! How could having more of this be a bad thing? So, you go to work for that favorite restaurant. You have access to the kitchen and inner workings. Suddenly, there are expectations now placed on you as an employee. You can’t be the customer you once were.

It’s easy to fall into fantasy thinking when considering working in ministry.

I remember people telling me early on that working in ministry, while rewarding, is lot harder than most people realize, with demands and pressures that can lead to burn out very quickly. And depending on your position, the work environment culture, and amount of responsibility, that can happen a lot quicker than you’d think.

Let me be clear. There are no perfect churches. And this isn’t about church bashing. It’s about talking about some realities that sometimes go unspoken.

It’s not easy to work in a place that is also your faith community. When things are good, it can be really good. You can feel like all areas of your life are coming together to create a greater picture. But when things are bad, they can be really bad. Working in the same faith community that is causing some of the tension in your life can leave you feeling like you don’t really have a safe place to work things out. You don’t want to seem like you’re airing out your dirty laundry, or being disrespectful/ungrateful, but you also know you can’t keep all that inside.

Creative Tension

In a creative role within the marketplace, the line in the sand is usually drawn between the “creatives” and the “account” people. They both seem to pull on opposite ends. The truth is (and yes I’m saying this as a “creative”) we need both sides. It’s a tension to be managed, not solved. Creatives actually need parameters to work insides of. (Limited budget? Just another creative challenge to solve.)

The church world, is no different, except sometimes it can the creative people on one side with the pastoral/leadership team on the other.

Just because a job is within a church, or non-profit space, it does not mean it is exempt to common issues that arise in the workplace. People are still people, with the good, the bad, and the ugly.

No one likes talking about that. At least not directly. Maybe it’s for fear of losing one’s job. Or not wanting to appear out of line. Instead, it’s easier for a creative to grumble and complain, feeling misunderstood and frustrated. (Which, honestly, as a creative can feel like a badge of honor… “the poor, misunderstood artist award of the year goes to…” ). In my days guilty of that, I had a coworker who would say “you’re leaking oil…”

For a lead or teaching pastor, it can be easier to skirt the real issues and hard conversations. I’ve seen it from both sides, having been not only a designer on staff, but also a pastor.

Church Creative

Right now, I want to speak to you, church creative.

First, I want to acknowledge your hard work and efforts. Your desire to create. Thank you for what you do, and how you do it. Be encouraged. Even if your role doesn’t have you receiving regular feedback (like the line of people ready to talk with the teaching pastor after service) know that what you do matters. It matters. And YOU matter.

Second, if you have issues or concerns, deal with them. Don’t avoid, or rally, or succumb to a sense of entitlement. Have the difficult conversations. In love. Be humble and serve. And sometimes, at the end of the day, the best path forward might mean leaving a position. That’s ok. But don’t just jump ship, moving on to another church thinking that will fix all your problems. If you truly feel that you are not aligned with your current church or position, it’s fine to move on. Just do it in a way that honors both you and them.

I know you can feel frustrated. Misunderstood. And even be filled with shame or guilt because you have these feelings working in a church. I mean, you’re working for God, right? Shouldn’t it be a better experience than what your current reality is?

All you really long for is to have your ideas validated. You want to be heard, and be set free to create something incredible. You don’t want to be micromanaged. You want what you bring to the table to be seen as valuable. You want to contribute.

Here’s something no one will tell you. (At least no one told me.)

Not all your creative ideas will have a place in your church work environment. In fact, they shouldn’t.

Yes, I said that.

And I’ll say it again.

Not all your creative ideas will have a place in your church work environment.

What if part of the problem with the frustration you’re feeling is that you have a misplaced expectation on your church creative position.

Your job, in the church or anywhere, will not fulfill the entirety of your creative needs. It was never meant to.

Take Charge of Your Creativity

So what’s the solution?

I believe that you must have your own creative passion projects. That are all yours. Projects that are not subject to church team vetoes or dying at the hands of executive decisions. A place where you can play and explore. If you work a creative day job, no matter where it is, this needs to be built into the rhythm of your life.

I can hear the rebuttal. Because I’ve been guilty of saying it in the past as well. “I just don’t have the energy or time left when I get home from my day job.” It’s being stuck in the cycle. You feel bad in your current circumstances. Those feelings are blocking you from attempting to make a change. But what you really need is that change.

When I started to sense this change was what I needed, I began a 365 day art making journey to get back to my personal art. I took lunch hours, and late nights, whatever time I could steal to devote to this new pursuit. I kept at it, month after month. And that journey continues to this day (nearly seven years later). It has changed, and challenged me. I discovered some keys that brought me to a place of passion in my creating like I had never experienced before. (Check out my art here.)

Ultimately, it’s what led me to creating my new online course “Your Artist Journey: Finding Your Voice & Style Through Daily Practice.” I wanted to create a place where I could not only share my journey, but what I learned through creating a daily art making habit. I’d love to invite you to check out the course if that’s something that speaks to you.

Your creativity is not segmented or compartmentalized. You are a whole person, and every part of you feeds into each other. If you have a hobby or passion that you are pursuing outside your day job, those experiences can actually inform and inspire your day job work. Ideas pop into your head not just when you are “on the clock.” And achieving some success in the non work areas of your life can boost your confidence and abilities overall.

You and I both know that you have so much more in you to create. Will it see the light of day? Stop waiting for permission. Stop trying to force it into a place where it doesn’t belong. Take responsibility for your own creativity.

It’s been several years since I’ve worked on a church staff, but I can tell you that what I do today, I consider to be ministry just as much. And as part of that “ministry” is wanting to as many help frustrated artists (not just church creatives) as I can. If you’re ready for Your Artist Journey, I’m extending my hand.

Mike Brennan

Written by

Visual artist. I create Rock Star Pet Portraits & Pop Culture art. Check out more of my work http://www.mikebrennan.me